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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter III. — Student and Minister

page 27

Chapter III.
Student and Minister.

Such dusky grandeur clothed the height,
Where the huge castle holds its state,
   And all the steep slope down,
Whose ridgy back heaves to the sky,
Piled deep and massy, close and high,
     Mine own romantic town.

Behold, then, the nephew of Robert Burns, and son of "the excellent Gilbert," taking his place in the classes of Edinburgh University at the age of 16. The farmer's lad, fresh from Edward Irving's School, finds himself in the ancient capital, never dreaming for an instant as he looks up at the Castle on the Rock that he shall be the founder of a New Edinburgh in the southern seas. Certainly a new world opens before the student as he leaves his school for ever and enrols himself as a member of a university. Probably Thomas was the first of the line of Burness to enjoy this privilege. Now he views the Church and the State from a new angle. Men of note may be seen and heard in the pulpits of the capital or respectfully passed in the street. The fashionable Whig set, headed by Lord Francis Jeffrey, Lord Henry Cockburn, Lord Henry Brougham, and Mr Francis Horner, M.P., representing the influential Edinburgh Review, were not much in the gaze of the public, although firmly established in the estimation of the discerning members of the community. The chief interest of the young student centred naturally round his teachers at the University. Foremost among the professors was the celebrated Sir John Leslie, previously referred to, who occupied the chair of mathematics. His real interest lay, however, in natural page 28philosophy; and most of his spare time was given to researches into the nature of heat. In 1819 he was transferred to the chair of natural philosophy, and thus he found a congenial sphere for the exercise of his abilities. It would appear that Professor Leslie made more impression upon his students than did any of the professors. Thomas Carlyle, who was two or three years senior, as a student, to Thomas Burns, said: "Professor Leslie alone of my professors had some genius for his business, and awoke a certain enthusiasm in me." Dr Thomas Guthrie, who entered the University in 1815 at the age of 12, also paid his tribute to Sir John Leslie. There is no doubt that Burns shared in these estimates of the professor of mathematics. It may be remarked that Leslie's popularity was secured in the face of a whispered suspicion in ecclesiastical circles that he was a follower of David Hume!

Next in importance to Leslie stands Dr Thomas Brown, who had succeeded the famous Dugald Stewart two years before Burns went to the University. He was a most versatile man, having passed from law to medicine; and, after being engaged in a large practice for some years, he transferred his allegiance to literature and philosophy. His chief contribution to psychology was regarded as the discovery of the "sixth" or "muscular" sense. He published at a later date his "Lectures on the Philosophy of the Human Mind," and these became so popular that they reached their twentieth edition—a fame, however, that was as transient as it was meteoric. As a teacher he did not rise to the heights of Dugald Stewart. Carlyle remarks somewhat sarcastically upon his tendency to "spout" original poetry in the class rooms, and apparently the students were not as appreciative of such efforts as they might have been. But one feels that such a teacher would redeem a course in philosophy from dullness, which was so much to the good.

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In Humanity or Latin Professor Alexander Christison is remembered with some appreciation; but the other teachers of that period failed to make a favourable impression upon the students. It was, we must remember, the age of "patronage," and so-called "pluralistic" appointments were fairly common. At the time of which we are speaking report had it, according to Dr Guthrie, that one of the professors read the lectures composed by his predecessor!

A picture of the life of a young student at Edinburgh University is furnished by Dr Guthrie in his memoir:—

We met in a part of the old college buildings at 8 o'clock in the morning. The room was dark. My seat was one of the highest up and farthest back. The professor, though a learned and at bottom a kind-hearted man, was very peppery; and, when, without rhyme or reason, he flew into a passion, it was not very wonderful that a boy who had some split peas in his pocket should, led on by older rogues, astonish the worthy man with a shower of them rattling like hailstones on the book he held, and on himself. I have seen him so carried away with passion that he would leave his chair to dance on the floor, or rush to collar, as happened sometimes, an innocent student, and drag him from his seat. The blame was more his than ours. Who cannot govern himself is unfit to govern others—the parent, master, or teacher, who, in dealing with his children, servants, or pupils, loses his temper, being sure to lose their respect. Another professor though sour and sulky, never indulged in outbreaks of passion, and we left the uproar of the class just mentioned to be as quiet as lambs in his.

Such was the world in which Thomas Burns found himself, participating, no doubt, in many of the actual incidents recorded by his contemporaries. His life, like theirs, out of the class room would be one of simplicity and brain work, vigour, and even hardship when judged by the standards of living to-day. Two students usually shared a room to do duty for sleeping, eating, and studying. For this, with coal—carefully rationed—attendance, page 30and cooking each would pay five or six shillings a week. There is little need to state the main article on the menu. Its fame has gone abroad wherever the message of Presbyterianism has been preached. Oatmeal porridge for breakfast and for supper, tea only at one meal a day, perhaps a dinner of fresh herring and potatoes, prepared by the landlady—such was the usual daily fare of the Scottish student.

There is every reason to believe that Thomas Burns made the most of his opportunities at the University. In his later life he showed the benefits of his training by the evidences of sound scholarship and a highly-cultivated sense of literary style. The zeal of Sir John Leslie for scientific discoveries and the eclectic philosophy of Dr Thomas Brown stirred his mind, already well stored with classical reading, and developed his unusual powers of observation and reflection. He always spoke gratefully of his professors. As a minister and leader of the colony of Otago, in the exercise of his high office, functioning often along most unusual lines, and involving a knowledge of the world of men as well as of learning, he adorned with distinction the reputation of his famous University.

On the completion of his arts course, Burns entered the Divinity Hall. Nearly seven years were to elapse, however, before he should be licensed by the Presbytery as a preacher of the Gospel. Evidently, like Irving and many others, he became a "partial" student; that is, one who, by special permission of the professors of the Hall, took up outside work, such as teaching or tutoring, and presented himself for examination in theological subjects from time to time. This arrangement lengthened the course for the ministry, but there were several compensations, in addition to the obvious one of financial relief. The extension of the sphere of experience was an important factor page 31in the making of the future minister. By living with families of refinement and social influence, the raw young man acquired qualities which fitted him to take his place in any company.

Burns was successful in his studies, and fortunate in his tutorships. Towards the end of his course he was engaged to teach the sons of Admiral Hornton. Later he became connected in a similar way with the influential Dalrymple family, with important results to his own future, as we shall soon see. Meantime the great event of his exit from the Hall, viz., his license by the Presbytery, approached. It was preceded, after the Scottish manner, by prescribed tests of "trials," which are set, not by the theological professors, but by the ministers and elders of the Presbytery. Such "trials" are designed to investigate the candidate's knowledge of the original languages of the Old and New Testaments, ability to expound the Scriptures, general scholarship, and "soundness" in the faith of the Church. The whole question of his fitness for the work of the ministry is raised. His character, learning, convictions, and abilities come under the full view of the Presbytery. If the reverend court is satisfied on all these points, it proceeds with due solemnity to license, or authorise, the candidate to preach the Gospel in the pulpits of the Church throughout the land, and, if such be his good fortune, to receive the authentication of his vocation in the shape of a call to a vacant charge.

The Presbytery of Haddington, under whose supervision Burns had been kept, conducted the necessary "trials," and, being satisfied on all points, duly licensed him at Haddington on December 3, 1822.1 The propage 32bationer, now 27 years of age, rather advanced in years for the status thus achieved, and having no certain prospects of a ministerial settlement immediately before him, continued for some time to act as tutor in the family of Sir Hugh Dalrymple, of Berwick House, North Berwick, not far away from his home and the scenes of his later boyhood.

The 10 years that had elapsed since Thomas left the homestead of Grants Braes to prosecute his studies for the ministry had been years of toil—and its due rewards —for Gilbert and his family. They had also been years of deep sorrow, mingled with happiness.

In the bereavements which befell the family during these years the young Burns shared the burden of grief with the parents. Isabella, the youngest child, died on July 3, 1815, in her seventh year. On September 14, 1815, the sixth child, Agnes, died—a beautiful girl of 15. Next year, on October 30, the eldest girl, Janet, in the eighteenth year of her age, was laid beside her sister in the kirkyard of Bolton. The aged grandmother, Agnes Burness, who had nurtured the poet and Gilbert, sank to rest on January 14, 1820, in the eighty-eighth year of her age. This venerable mother of the brothers of genius and worth, who had lived under Gilbert's roof tree from the time of her widowhood, must have exercised a profound influence over the minds and hearts of the inmates of Grants Braes, as a living witness of the past, with all its toil and romance, its poetry and its prose, as exemplified within the circle of the "simple Scottish lays," of the "priest-like father," and "his thrifty wifie's smile." And now her corner by "the wee bit ingle, blinkin bonnilie" would know her no more. Her name will ever be honoured by Scotsmen as the mother of Scotland's greatest bard of the human heart. And equally page 33honoured should she be as the mother of Gilbert, and as the grandmother of Thomas Burns.

The following letter of Gilbert's, addressed to his nephew, Mr Robert Begg, assistant teacher at Dalmeny, tells the news:—

Grants Braes,

January 17, 1820.

Dear Nephew,—Your grandmother died on the 14th inst., and is to be buried on Thursday, the 20th, at noon. I shall be very glad to see you here to attend her funeral if you can conveniently get away, but you will just do as you find it convenient. I am sorry to inform you that my wife has been alarmingly ill for a week past with inflammation in her chest, and I cannot say yet she is any better. Your sister Agnes was here yesterday to see her, and your mother and family were all then well.—I remain, dear Robert, yours sincerely,

Gilbert Burns.2

But with the mellowing of the years there came a lightening of some of life's burdens. Gilbert Burns had been engaged by Messrs Caddell and Davis, publishers, to cooperate with Dr Currie in the preparation of an edition of the works of his famous brother. This had involved much literary labour on the part of Gilbert, who was able to draw abundantly upon his stores of reminiscence in relation to the life and work of the poet. His notes prefixed to a large number of the poems and songs are extremely valuable, as are his comments upon the main incidents in his brother's career. To this pleasant and yet plaintive task Gilbert brought his remarkable gifts of memory, taste, and judgment. He received from the publishers in the year 1820 the sum of £500 as remuneration for his work. His first act was to pay £180 of this money to Jean, the widow of Robert Burns, in discharge of the page 34debt which existed—if debt it really could be called— from the time when Robert parted company with him at Mossgiel.

Gilbert Burns continued to live at Grants Braes till the close of his life. His youngest surviving daughter, Jean, died in her twentieth year on January 4, 1827. Within seven weeks John, the fifth son, previously referred to as a student for the ministry, succumbed to an attack of typhus fever, and was laid to rest in the family grave at Bolton. His career at the University, especially in mathematics, had been a very distinguished one, and it ended just before his license as a probationer. The ageing Gilbert felt the weight of bereavement after bereavement; and on a Sabbath morning a few weeks later, April 8, 1827, while the church bell broke the silence of the hills above, he entered into eternal rest in the sixty-seventh year of his age. The record of family deaths is inscribed on the stone that stands in the well-kept plot of the Bolton churchyard. It is within a dozen yards of the mausoleums of the lords and ladies of Blantyre, whom Gilbert Burns served as a steward so faithfully. His youngest son, named after himself, in 1877, left to the minister and kirk session of Bolton the sum of £50, the interest of which is available for keeping the family grave of Gilbert Burns in order. All who knew Gilbert Burns were deeply impressed with his sterling character and unusual abilities. The famous Dr Thomas Chalmers paid him a visit in July 12, 1826, and records his appreciation of his worth.3 Superlatives fall naturally from those who speak of Gilbert, as they had been used by Murdoch and others regarding the sire, William Burness. In Otago, there is the same tradition regarding the Rev. Thomas Burns. In all essential respects, the succession of likeness between page 35William, Gilbert, and Thomas Burns holds good. In appearance they had strong, massive features, lit up by bright, steady, and penetrating eyes. The nose was aquiline, unlike Robert's, which was straight. They were tall and sturdily-built, with a very slight stoop of the shoulders. By the death of Gilbert the widowed Jean, the excellent wife and mother, was left with but few of her once numerous family of 11 at her side. William, the eldest son, and Gilbert, the youngest, were living in Ireland by this time. Robert, the fourth son, had emigrated to South America. Thomas was settled, as we shall see, in a distant parish in Scotland. Only James, the second son, who was following in his father's footsteps as a factor to the Blantyre family, and Ann, the one surviving daughter, were with her, in addition to Annabella, her late husband's sister, who lived till 1832. The widowed Mrs Gilbert Burns was taken by James to his home; and she died on February 6, 1841, and was buried in the churchyard of Erskine, Renfrewshire. She was remembered by those who knew her with affection and esteem.

From the foregoing narrative of the family life at Grants Braes it will be realised that Thomas Burns entered upon his full work with, more than the usual share of sorrows. No doubt that fact tended to intensify the deep seriousness of his nature. He took up the tasks of the Christian ministry with full resolution to serve his God with all his powers of mind, heart, and will.

For about three years and a-half after becoming a licentiate of the Church of Scotland, Burns remained without a charge. He continued as tutor to the family of Sir Hugh Dalrymple. Through the offices of this patron, Mr Burns was offered the vacant living of Ballantrae. This was a clear evidence of the esteem in which page 36he was held by the Dalrymple family, and the offer of the living was conceived also in the best interests of the needs of the parish. Burns accepted the presentation, and, after passing with distinction the examinations and trials preparatory to ordination, he was duly ordained and inducted into the parish of Ballantrae by the Presbytery of Stranraer on April 13, 1826.

The scene of the first charge of the Rev. Thomas Burns is of interest for several reasons. He began his work amid some of the loveliest and most healthful surroundings that can be conceived. He was back once more in the genial west of Scotland, where he had been brought up. In fact he was in the "land of Burns," which was becoming more and more associated with the poet as his fame became more universally recognised. Ballantrae was a small fishing village, situated on the coast due south of the Isles of Arran and Ailsa Craig. Girvan is the principal town of the district, and is about a dozen miles north of Ballantrae, which was then a very quiet little place, being peopled mainly by fishing folk and smugglers. Yet, in that little village Burns was to receive training in the actual work of the pastorate. He was being fitted for wider service. He came into contact with the primal realities of human nature. The presence and power of evil made themselves felt in the small community, and the sturdy young minister measured his strength with the forces working against his people's welfare.

Through the kindness of the present minister of Ballantrae parish church, the Rev. Munro Somerville, B.D., we are placed in possession of first-hand evidence of the zeal and vigour of his predecessor of 100 years ago. The work of the kirk session under Mr Burns was largely directed towards correcting abuses in the moral life of the district. Like his father, Mr Burns had page 37strength of character to the highest degree without self-assertiveness, and this force was ever exercised quietly but firmly against intemperance and iniquity of every kind. Strong drink was regarded by him, not without family reasons, as an enemy of the Christian religion. In this, his first charge, Mr Burns appears as a pioneer of temperance reform far ahead of his generation, and in the following pronouncement—the first of his compositions to come to our eyes—we have evidence of the dire peril of the indulgence in ardent spirits, which had been increasing for a generation in Scotland, with corresponding increase in degradation and misery of every sort. The fire of moral zeal and compassion in the soul of the minister flames like a beacon above the dark customs of those times, even in a small place like Ballantrae.

Extract from the minutes of meeting of kirk session at Ballantrae parish church, February 25, 1828:—

It having been represented to the kirk session that the sin of drunkenness has of late greatly increased within the parish, and that within the period of a few weeks past such excesses have been committed as to reflect discredit and disgrace upon the whole community where such things are tolerated and encouraged, the session feel it to be their duty, through their Moderator, to make a public declaration of their grief and abhorrence that a vice so disgraceful in its nature and so dreadful in its consequences should be spreading in the parish, and to intimate their unanimous determination to visit with the heaviest censures of the Church such regardless persons as may hereafter persist in outraging every feeling of common decency and Christian propriety in the surrounding neighbourhood. The session further resolve that in their name an extract of the above minute be transmitted to each of the public-house keepers in the parish earnestly requesting them to aid and concur with the session in correcting the further progress of this vice; in the first place by refusing to supply any persons with spirits beyond the bounds of sobriety, and in the second place by closing their houses at some regular hour, not later than 11 at night, so that after that hour no person except a stranger travelling shall on any pretence be allowed to drink in their houses."

1 This date, which is earlier than that stated in most of the brief memoirs of Burns's life, is given in "The Book of Robert Burns," vol. III (Rogers and Higgins), issued by the Grampians Club, Edinburgh, 1891; and is that recorded in the biographical notice of Dr Burns included in "Fasti Ecclesiæ Scoticanæ," revised edition, vol. III, 1920.

2 From letters In Edinburgh City Museum, kindly copied and sent to the author by the Rev. A. V. G. Chandler, of Lovell's Flat, whilst visiting Scotland.

3 "Memoirs of Dr. Thomas Chalmers," by Dr Hanna, vol. II, p. 96.